Frank Skinner - ‘I always try to take the piss out of myself’
This article is from 2009.
In the grand tradition of tour diaries, Frank Skinner has written On the Road, one of the more entertaining accounts by a random sex-eschewing, teetotal ukulele enthusiast who simply loves visiting churches. Jay Richardson talks to him about fingernail-collecting fans, the craft of ad-libbing and auctioning off his hair
The List: How do book readings compare to performing stand-up?
Frank Skinner: Well, I select a couple of bits from the book, read a bit and then get interviewed by whoever they’ve got to interview me. Then I read some more. But the ones I’ve done so far have been stormers. They’ve been funny, there’s no other word for it.
TL: Will you be censoring yourself for the ladies of Morningside?
FS: I always judge it by the audience. Do you know the comic Max Miller? He used to say ‘do you want the blue book or the white book?’ If they said white, he’d do a clean act and if they said blue, he’d do a rude one. When I come to read extracts, I say the same. It’s always been the blue so far, but if they ask for white I’m happy to modify.
TL: What about the banana episode?
FS: I read that out recently actually, in two instalments, a bit of a cliff-hanger. Like a Sherlock Holmes story in Strand magazine. I left them thinking ‘ooh, will she or won’t she?’ Then I went back to it at the end. But you don’t want to read too much. They wouldn’t sit cross-legged while I read from Stig of the Dump.
TL: Now you’re in a committed relationship, are you worried that the well of saucy sex stories will finally run dry?
FS: When I first started I was talking about how hard it was to find sex, then a couple of tours followed about how easy it was suddenly, and now, as you say, it’s a little retrospective and wistful. It’s like flying over a well-known landmark. You see it approaching, you’re right over a fabulous view but then it’s gone and you’re only left with the memories. Still, I think it’s been good for my act. Russell Brand can’t do material about being sexually successful forever unless he suddenly becomes celibate or something, whereas I’ve had organic growth, blossoming and now, decline.
TL: You have claimed that Edinburgh was where you found your ‘comedy voice’. How do you feel about the Fringe now?
FS: I’m especially excited about it this year because the Credit Crunch Cabaret has reintroduced me to the art of compering. I’d forgotten how much I love it, how joyous it is. Compering clubs really got me going as a comic, moved me on a pace and I’d imagined it was a stage I’d gone through and wouldn’t return to.
TL: Is it difficult retaining a cheeky chappie, everyman persona as a millionaire?
FS: Well, I’ve always been autobiographical, so I talk about that. And I always try to take the piss out of myself too. But it’s worth mentioning that when I’ve done the Credit Crunch in London, I’ve been writing about 20, 25 minutes of topical material every week, five minutes a day, and I know as I’m doing them, these jokes are dead before they hit the ground, no matter how well they’re done or how big a laugh they’ve got. I love the restlessness of writing loads of stuff you’ll never use again. It’s what I used to do in the early days, when I was lean and hungry.
TL: Are audiences keener for a laugh during a recession?
FS: I don’t know. I’ve been told that ticket sales are up generally. And I like the fact that people’s social priorities include going to comedy. But we’re doing it for £10 because it might be all people can afford. It’s not a massive gesture that’s going to change the world or save you losing your job. But it informs the whole ambience of the gig, there’s love in the room from the off.
TL: You write fondly of Catholicism’s magic and mystery. Weren’t you concerned about stripping away some of stand-up’s mystery, as you do when you talk about faking ‘ad-libs’?
FS: If you write a book about yourself and it’s not going to empty it all out, I don’t see the point. In my previous book, I tried to be as honest as I could, but I don’t know if I was completely honest about my craft. I can’t stand it when someone says ‘did you know what you’d say when you went up there or did you make up the whole thing?’ After an hour and 45 minutes of stand-up!
Some people really don’t wish to know the workings, they want to think that it’s just flow. And some of it is. But some of it is quite carefully worked up and I don’t want to be phoney about it. We’re moving into MPs’ expenses territory then? The golden wall is down so everybody has a right to know everything.
TL: How are other comedians responding to the book?
FS: Well, comedians aren’t always quick to heap praise on each other.
TL: But what about your insecurity as a performer?
FS: So many have said they love it and told me ‘oh God, that’s exactly what it’s like’. The ‘patheticness’. My friend telling me ‘you can have a lot of fun on tour’ and then me spending two days working out exactly what they meant. It’s a performer’s thing but not exclusively. If you’re in a new relationship you pull apart everything they say on the phone, trying to work out whether it was good or bad. It’s an extreme version of that.
TL: You also write about fearing a slide into radio mediocrity, yet recently you’ve become a breakfast DJ, fronted documentaries and penned newspaper columns. Has spreading yourself around invigorated your comedy?
FS: It’s ironic you use the phrase ‘invigorated’, because I’ve always found publicity a chore to be honest. But I said ‘look, I’ll do everything, let’s just do as much as we can’. And after doing Have I Got News for You, chat shows, radio stuff and the newspaper, I found I really enjoyed it.
I said I was through with panel shows but I actually found the publicity campaign handed me back my mojo. I just stroll in like an old tomcat, do a few jokes, and then leave them to the edit. There’s something really lovely about trying to be funny in different media.
TL: So will Alan Bennett write a play with you now?
FS: Probably not. Although I just wrote a short story for a magazine and found myself writing in neo-Shakespearean language, which I had no intention of doing when I sat at the keyboard.
It was my Susan Boyle moment, suddenly this beautiful thing came out of nowhere and surprised everyone, including me. So while people are amazed to see me on Question Time, writing neo-Shakespearean short stories is truly pushing their perception of me to the limit.
TL: What happened when you auctioned some of your hair?
FS: I genuinely thought someone would go ‘oh, its money for Childline, we’ll give them £20’. But someone paid £1000!
TL: As an obsessive Elvis fan, aren’t you worried it’s part of a Frank Skinner shrine?
FS: I once went out with a woman who told me she’d taken my fingernails out of the ashtray one night where I’d left them and that with a bit of spellworking, she could make me fall in love with her for the rest of her life. As I don’t remember her name, I’m guessing it didn’t work.
Frank Skinner, Charlotte Square Gardens, 0845 373 5888, 23 Aug, 9.30pm, £9 (£7); Frank Skinner’s Credit Crunch Cabaret, Assembly Rooms, George Street, 0131 623 3030, 14–30 Aug (not 17), 6.50pm, £10; 27–29 Aug, midnight, £10.